A viral RNA motif involved in signaling the initiation of translation on non-AUG codons

Sanz, M., et al. A viral RNA motif involved in signaling the initiation of translation on non-AUG codons, 25(4), 431-452

Noncanonical translation, and particularly initiation on non-AUG codons, are frequently used by viral and cellular mRNAs during virus infection and disease. The Sindbis virus (SINV) subgenomic mRNA (sgRNA) constitutes a unique model system to analyze the translation of a capped viral mRNA without the participation of several initiation factors. Moreover, sgRNA can initiate translation even when the AUG initiation codon is replaced by other codons. Using SINV replicons, we examined the efficacy of different codons in place of AUG to direct the synthesis of the SINV capsid protein. The substitution of AUG by CUG was particularly efficient in promoting the incorporation of leucine or methionine in similar percentages at the amino terminus of the capsid protein. Additionally, valine could initiate translation when the AUG is replaced by GUG. The ability of sgRNA to initiate translation on non-AUG codons was dependent on the integrity of a downstream stable hairpin (DSH) structure located in the coding region. The structural requirements of this hairpin to signal the initiation site on the sgRNA were examined in detail. Of interest, a virus bearing CUG in place of AUG in the sgRNA was able to infect cells and synthesize significant amounts of capsid protein. This virus infects the human haploid cell line HAP1 and the double knockout variant that lacks eIF2A and eIF2D. Collectively, these findings indicate that leucine-tRNA or valine-tRNA can participate in the initiation of translation of sgRNA by a mechanism dependent on the DSH. This mechanism does not involve the action of eIF2, eIF2A, or eIF2D.